WASHINGTON, Sept 13 (Reuters) – Secretary of State Antony Blinken will testify twice to Congress this week about the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, as lawmakers kick off what could be a long series of high-intensity hearings about the chaotic end to America’s longest war.
Members of Congress – President Joe Biden’s fellow Democrats as well as opposition Republicans – have planned hearings since the Taliban seized control of the country last month after a rapid advance.
Blinken will appear on Monday before the House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee and on Tuesday before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, the first Biden administration official to testify publicly to lawmakers since the Islamist militant group’s takeover.
Fireworks are expected, given the amount of finger-pointing over how the two-decade-long U.S. presence in the country ended. Some Republicans have called on Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris and Blinken all to resign.
“We expect a confrontational hearing,” a Senate aide said.
In prepared remarks for his testimony on Monday, Blinken discussed the months leading to the evacuation, and pledged that the United States will continue to support humanitarian aid.
“Consistent with sanctions, this aid will not flow through the government, but rather through independent organizations like NGOs (non-governmental organizations) and U.N. agencies,” Blinken said in his statement.
Members of Congress promised a long list of questions about the rapid collapse of the U.S.-backed Afghan government and the Biden administration’s scramble to evacuate 124,000 people, including Americans and at-risk Afghans.
“I imagine there will be a lot of questions on what decisions were being made leading up to the withdrawal, including why the White House pressed DOD (the Defense Department) to withdraw troops before we evacuated American civilians and our Afghan partners,” Representative Michael McCaul, the top Republican on the House committee, said in a written reply to a request for comment on the hearing.
He said he also wanted to know why assets like the Bagram Air Base were not maintained and why the administration had not reached surveillance and counterterrorism agreements with neighboring countries.
McCaul also expected questions about what happened at Kabul’s airport during the evacuation ahead of the administration’s Aug. 31 deadline to leave. Thirteen U.S. troops and dozens of Afghans were killed in a suicide bombing amid the chaos.
“We all want to know what State is doing to fulfill President Biden’s promise to get the remaining Americans, green card holders and our Afghan partners out of the country before it’s too late,” McCaul said.
Democrats said they wanted the hearing to address not just the seven months Biden was president before Kabul was captured by the Taliban but all 20 years of U.S. involvement in the country – under presidents from both parties.
A U.S.-led invasion toppled the Taliban in 2001 after the Sept. 11 attacks masterminded by al Qaeda leaders based in Afghanistan.
“My fear is that Republicans are going to turn this into a circus and try to put the blame on Joe Biden for 20 years’ worth of mistakes in Afghanistan,” Senator Chris Murphy, a Democratic member of the foreign relations panel, told reporters.
“The real question is why did we stay in Afghanistan for another 10 years after we knew that there was going to be no way we could build an Afghan military, an Afghan government that was capable of holding the country against the Taliban once we left,” Murphy said on a call discussing a recent trip to Europe and the Middle East.
Another committee Democrat, Senator Chris Van Hollen, noted that Republican former President Donald Trump had pushed to get out of Afghanistan even more quickly and criticized Biden for remaining as long as he did.
“It’s a little hard to take and listen to Republican colleagues who strongly supported the Trump decisions to now be attacking President Biden for decisions that they had previously supported,” he said on the same call.
Reporting by Patricia Zengerle and Humeyra Pamuk; Editing by Peter Cooney and Alistair Bell
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